Staging Overcoming: Narratives of Disability and Meritocracy in Reality Singing Competitions

Journal of the Society for American Music 11:2 (2017), 184–214

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Tales of overcoming have dominated reality competitions since this television genre took global flight at the turn of the millennium. For hopeful contestants dealing with impairments, strife, loss, poverty, or trauma, the meritocratic dream coheres in a tempting belief that talent, ambition, and hard work can trump all ails and adversity. On reality competitions, specific talents (musical performance, dance, fashion design, culinary arts) sparkle as golden foils for otherwise down-on-their-luck contestants. Stories of disability and overcoming supply reliable comfort food to the millions of viewers who consume reality shows as part of their weekly media diets. Mixing sentimental narratives with sensational performances yields feel-good television, plotting out predictable trajectories that culminate in thunderous applause and messages of hope. Granted, not all viewers buy into reality television at face value. Many express skepticism toward the format’s narrative conceits, complain about producers’ ulterior motives, wonder whether judges’ responses are scripted, and venture theories about rigged votes.

In the disability studies literature to date, scholars have critiqued overcoming narratives mainly with analyses of their representational strategies, cultural contexts, and semantic nuances (in films, television shows, plays, memoirs, and news reports), in effect probing what the texts mean and how they signify. In this article, I carve out a different path, one that grapples with what overcoming narratives do and how they act on the people who consume them. I’m interested here as much in feeling as I am in meaning. With reality competitions, stories of overcoming proffer inspirational tropes that stand to overcome audiences in turn. By bringing viewers’ bodies, agencies, emotions, and perceptual faculties into focus, tales of uplift can be so viscerally compelling that they leave us at a loss for satisfactory criticisms. Before we know it, sensations take over and the waterworks undam, sending us grasping at words and groping for tissues. For even if some overcoming narratives might come off corny and contrived, the fact remains that they have extraordinary powers to charm and disarm, undermining viewers’ self-determination and efforts at adjudication. Triumphant tales can seem grand yet also cheap in multiple senses of the word—formulaic (cheaply conceived), easily manufactured (cheap in labor costs), and manipulative (cheap shots to bleeding hearts). At the same time, viewers might take pleasure in exactly this loss of control, allowing themselves to suspend judgment upon surrendering to an irresistible montage. Overcoming narratives therefore have the ability to leave consumers feeling ambivalent and, in some senses, disabled (discursively, critically, even physiologically). Beyond identifying the resonances of vulnerability, precarity, and resistance in disability and its metaphors, I’m invested in how these affects play out at the interface between disabled performers and the spectators who celebrate or criticize them.


Although reality competitions have blossomed into an international phenomenon—with Idol, Voice, Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, and X Factor variants spanning dozens of countries—shows in the United States offer an opportune lens to critique overcoming narratives drawn from the meritocratic ideals of the American Dream. And of all the talents featured on reality shows, singing ability has long stood out as a compelling and romanticized corrective for disability. Singing competitions highlight the lyric voice as a natural instrument, a catch-all vehicle for subjectivity, sincerity, and an ably communicative body. For performers with mobility impairments, the singing voice ostensibly overcomes kinesthetic limits and the challenges of space, filling up auditoriums and projecting into viewers’ living rooms across the country; for performers who speak with a stutter but sing fluently, signs of crip time (delays and temporal vicissitudes related to disability) likewise sound smoothed over. Beautiful singing inspires discourses of transcendence and ineffability, yet it also fulfills an ironically normalizing function in cases of already-extraordinary bodies. As reality competitions glorify lyric proficiency as evidence of a contestant’s normalcy, they simultaneously conceal, mitigate, or draw attention away from impairments at hand, potentially curbing rather than generating much-needed conversations about disability. Whereas matters of disability are liable to leave audiences at a loss for words (out of anxieties about, say, political correctness), people may feel relatively at ease using safe, standard vocabularies to pass technical judgment on voice alone, on music as music. A normate-sounding song, in other words, offers listeners a comfortable locus of critical fixation. Autonomously conceived, musical ability makes for a potent alibi, enabling representations and assessments of performers as though disability were inconsequential or dispensable. Across these exercises in imagination and elision, it is ultimately ableism and prejudice that most urgently need overcoming.